Monday, October 7, 2013


The job of tackling the final story of the Boy Who Lived was a big one, and many people had expressed interest in it. Alfonso Cuaron, director of PRISONER OF AZKABAN, had said he'd consider coming back for the finale, as did Guillermo Del Toro (who had been offered PRISONER but declined) before his workload on THE HOBBIT made that an impossibility. Lots of big names wanted in on the action.

But David Yates, who began his term at Hogwarts in Part 3 with ORDER OF THE PHOENIX and HALF-BLOOD PRINCE agreed to finish the journey, bringing a close to what Chris Columbus began in Part 1, what Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell helped shepherd and continue in Part 2.

And now...


When the decision was announced to split the finale of the HARRY POTTER franchise into two films, I'll admit I was supremely skeptical, even going so far as to dub the "extra" movie "Harry Potter and Another Billion Dollars." To be fair, it legitimately was. But as it happens, the extra breathing room (a combined running time of over 4 1/2 hours) ended up being more than necessary.

The two films (DEATHLY HALLOWS Part 1 & DEATHLY HALLOWS Part 2) were shot back-to-back in a fashion that has become something of a recent trend in Hollywood, but can trace back its roots at least as far as BACK TO THE FUTURE Parts II and III. This had initially been an idea bandied about during the early production stages of GOBLET OF FIRE, but only executed for the finale. While both movies were filmed simultaneously and are essentially a single over-arching story, the end result are two very different pieces of work in tone, pacing, and stylistic choices.

HALLOWS Part 1 has a very somber, deliberately evocative opening, beginning with a declaration of enduring strength from the Minister of Magic (Bill Nighy in a brief but memorable turn) that recalls public officials in the aftermath of events like the 9/11 tragedy or the attack on Pearl Harbor. These parallels are made more obvious by Yates as the films chronicle the rise of Voldemort's power, but first the film zeroes in on the three leads as they prepare to say goodbye to their homes. Almost entirely through visual storytelling, Harry, Ron, and Hermione all take their leave of childhood, incorporating elements that go back as far as the very first film, and making for some of the most understated but also most emotional imagery in the series. Hermione's departure in particular is a brilliant moment of domestic tragedy, and a performance highlight for Emma Watson.

It's very appropriate that the movie begins with the departure of its three central characters, because the first film of DEATHLY HALLOWS is very much a road movie. Charged with finishing the task of hunting down and destroying the Horcruxes that protect Voldemort from harm, Harry and his friends are fumbling their way through their first journey away from Hogwarts. Outside of school, the three are often lost and confused, literally wandering in the woods in an on-point metaphor for the uncertain transition into adulthood. On this journey they struggle with doubt, both in their mission and - for the first genuine moment of the series - in each other.

Much of this extended struggle is also meant to put the audience in the shoes of someone caught up in a war that isn't always raging around them, but is nonetheless a constant. The "hurry up and wait" tedium, the never knowing what sort of disaster could strike next at you or your friends and family, listening to the radio for some small piece of news. The added stress of the mental attack by the Horcruxes themselves gets cast back at the audience both by the performances of the leads and the subtle-but-grating sound effects that the film provides for the dark objects, creating a palpable sense of the discontent felt by the characters.

But just as in his previous films, Yates knows how to mine the entire emotional spectrum. There is delight to be found in HALLOWS Part 1, particularly during the sequence where Harry, Ron, and Hermione break into the Ministry of Magic after it falls under Voldemort's control. The infiltration of the Ministry is mostly a rollicking caper with a side of tense cat-and-mouse, and a dash of farce, and is a complete joy. It's also one of the few overplayed (in a good way) moments in the movie, both in terms of the allegory (the race hunting and propaganda pamphlets only drive home the "Voldemort as Magic Hitler" parallel) and - especially - performance. Yates started this with ORDER, but shows consistently through his HARRY POTTER films his talent for taking big, broad moments from the source material and toning them down slightly to take full advantage of both his actors and the visual flair of the medium. The rift in the three friends isn't an explosion in the film, it's a slow, insidious erosion that's all the more tragic because of how mundane it seems at times.

Whereas the eventual reunion is where the fireworks happen. Perfect catharsis.

The fact that this business works so well in this movie particularly is really a testament to how finely honed the young actors' craft has become. Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson had become so comfortable in their roles that they convey a wide range of conflicting and building feeling with a few glances and body language. Harry and Hermione's dance speaks pages about their history, their relationship, and their emotions without them ever saying a word. It's a beautiful moment that is completely unnecessary to the narrative, but that the film absolutely needed.

These small touches permeate the film, even filtering down into supporting cast. Building from the last movie, Tom Felton continues to dig into the humanity of Malfoy even with comparatively little screen time, from the look of disgust and terror at Voldemort's treatment of a Hogwarts professor to the war of emotion over whether or not to reveal Harry. "Show, don't tell" is employed often here, to great effect, whether it's performances or entire sequences like the visualization of the Tale of the Three Brothers, which is an absolute work of beauty. The movie overall really excels at the finer details.

Unfortunately it also finds its flaws there as well. Even with all the extra time afforded by splitting the book into two movies, there was still a wealth of material that had to be left on the cutting room floor. Some characters that were integral to the film's plot (like Dobby) hadn't been included in previous adaptations (like GOBLET OF FIRE) and so their involvement in HALLOWS seems convenient rather than natural. Other details, like the magic mirror fragment that Harry carries with him (an element from the book that never made it to ORDER OF THE PHOENIX), or the fact that Tonks and Lupin have a child (which gets mentioned in the finale but never brought up beforehand) are never given a word of explanation. In a film that is so preoccupied with searching for answers, the ones that the movie ignores stick out.

Chief among these is the majority of the back-story concerning Albus Dumbledore, which never finds its way into the film despite being deliberately teased in the first act. It lends a feeling of incompleteness, of haphazard storytelling to what had been, to that point, a finely-tuned machine of quality narrative under Yates. Luckily, the majority of the storytelling (the mainline narrative concerning the Horcruxes and the Hallows) and the cast are strong enough that the rickety bits of the film's scaffolding are mostly negligible.

Because the second film can function as an extended climax and near-constant emotional payoff, DEATHLY HALLOWS Part 2 has a notable advantage here. It has a few artifacts inherited from its immediate predecessor in terms of unresolved threads, but they're much MUCH less noticeable in the face of the final film's pacing and tone. Whereas HALLOWS Part 1 was at heart a very introspective film, Part 2 is an all out assault of epic film-making and huge emotional beats, building momentum steadily from the first few minutes and hardly bothering to stop once it gets underway.

The movie opens, for the first time, without the signature John Williams theme, but a slow and haunting chorus and mournful strings. The film begins with Hogwarts under control by Death Eaters and Dementors, setting the stage for the eventual liberation of and climactic battle for the iconic school. Said showdown takes up more than half of the film's 130 minutes (a record low for the series), but the movie takes just enough time to set the stage. The obligatory exposition near the beginning actually comes off as welcome because of the amount of time the previous film spent with the characters so in the dark, and the break-in at Gringotts is great escalation and example of the characters becoming more active than reactive.

And the focus still rests squarely on character. Whatever else can be said for the entire HARRY POTTER series, the importance of the human element has always been stressed, especially in the better films of the series, and HALLOWS Part 2 is, if anything, a perfect example of this mission statement. The movie speeds toward the final conflict, swooping between the defenders of Hogwarts and the followers of Lord Voldemort, giving subtle payoffs and beats for supporting players like the Malfoys, McGonagall, Fred and George Weasley, Lupin and Tonks, and students like Neville, Seamus, and Ginny. But the connective tissue is strongest between Harry and the Dark Lord, the bond between them emphasized every time a Horcrux is destroyed and Voldemort's armor cracked.

It would have been easy to let the spectacle of thousands of wizards and monstrous creatures clashing amidst the ruin of Hogwarts Catle's iconic towers overpower the personal moments. Instead, it's the hunt for the Horcruxes, from the depths of the school to the revelation of the final location, and the small battles of Harry and his friends here that almost overshadow - but instead reinforce - the titanic struggle going on outside. And when the three do get involved in the Battle of Hogwarts, Yates shoots some of the most impressive action in the series.

But it all comes down to revelations, choices, and consequences. And here we find the linchpin of the film's greatest dramatic triumph and one of the franchise's most spectacular casting victories. After a decade of slowly showing the wounded man beneath the sneering professor, Alan Rickman gets to deliver what winds up being eight films worth of pent-up emotion and tragedy. This is, frankly, exactly the sort of payoff that you hire someone of Rickman's calibur before, and it cements him as arguably the most perfect casting in the entire series.

I say arguably, because just as so much is asked of Harry himself, HALLOWS Part 2 places more weight than ever on Radcliffe, and he doesn't just rise to the task, he absolutely CRUSHES IT. Watching him take that fateful walk into the Dark Forest, the heart-breaking look on his face contrasted with the wonder with which he first beheld the wizarding world, the audience sees a man grown in strength and talent in a journey that reflects that of the character he portrays. Oh, and the film-making that grounds it is pretty damn stellar too.

There's a lot that works about the HARRY POTTER films, nearly everything when you look at the back half of the series, especially when watching all the movies together. The growth of the cast is underlined, the directors' personal touches emphasized, and the "big" moments still manage to stand apart. There's very little to find fault in the finale on a revisit (even the epilogue looks more convincing make-up wise on a smaller screen), and the two-part finish completes the herculean task of being a quality adaptation of a seminal piece of fiction AND crafting a towering piece of fantasy cinema.

It brings the Boy Who Lived to life.

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